It’s the age-old “nature versus nurture” question many parents agonise over: will giving your child a particular type of education have any bearing on their success as adults? Australians seem to think so, with just 65.4 per cent of students enrolled in the public system.
Parents may believe that investing in a private education is money well spent, but studies consistently show that intelligence and parental engagement are far more influential. So should parents choose the same school for all their kids, or somewhere tailored to each child’s individual talents and needs? Will it even matter? Three sisters explain what happened to them.
Candice Canon, 29, attended a private school after winning a scholarship to study there. She is now a registered nurse.
“Cerise and I are identical twins, but ever since we were little our mother pushed us to develop our own interests and hobbies. During primary school, she made sure we were always placed in separate classrooms so teachers couldn’t compare us or adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, and when it came to our secondary education she thought it best that we each attend a school that suited our individual personalities.
Mum’s a single mother with five daughters, but even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to pay for a private school education for all of us, she didn’t let that deter her. She encouraged us to sit for the scholarship test and the next thing I knew, I was receiving a letter of acceptance from a grammar school.
Going from a state primary to a private school, it wasn’t hard to see the differences. Obviously the facilities and the grounds were a vast improvement on anything I was used to, but I also quickly noticed things were far more streamlined.
In the public system, for example, you got the sense that most things – camps, excursions and extracurricular activities – were voluntary, but in my new environment it was made clear that everyone had to participate.
There was a competitive edge to everything we did and being on a scholarship, I felt a huge sense of expectation from others within the school community that I would perform well to ‘earn’ my place.
Our school also had a more conservative approach to dressing, hair and jewellery than my sisters’schools – I remember we received on-the-spot checks to ensure we were well groomed, and I recall a girl being asked to remove her make-up. Behavioural standards, though, appeared to be the same across the board.
I wouldn’t say I was miserable at my school – there were elements I loved, such as running in cross-country competitions, inter-school debating, public speaking contests and performing in plays and concerts.
As time went on, I flourished and became music captain, but I definitely thought Cerise and Emily had the better deals. Every day they were heading to their schools in the city where they were rubbing shoulders with a wide mix of people from every ethnic background and socioeconomic group, while I sometimes felt that I was stuck in a world that was small and close-minded.
I went on to study arts at Deakin University after school, yet even though I’d wanted to be a nurse for as long as I can remember, I fell into a job working as a personal assistant to a school principal.
For a time there I felt burnt out and directionless – many of my friends from school did – but after a period overseas, I came back to study again at the age of 23. This time I studied nursing and I’ve been working in the field I love ever since.
Sometimes I wonder if my education had any bearing on my life as an adult, and I would saythat aside from taking a little longer to get to where I ultimately wanted to be, it hasn’t. I’m a firm believer that the institute you attend as a teenager makes no difference – it’s all about who you are as an individual.”
Emily Canon, 28, attended a single-sex selective school and now works as an implementation manager in IT.
“From a young age, my mindset was all about ‘aiming high’, so I was desperate to attend a selective school. Unfortunately, the school I had my sights on only took students from year nine, so for the first two years until I sat the selective school test in year eight, I had to attend the same grammar school as Candice – on a partial scholarship.
I know some people thrive in that kind of environment, but I was not one of them. There was a real emphasis on school culture and social status – so much so that you often felt too afraid or intimidated to put your hand up in class. I wanted out badly, so when I received a letter to say I’d been accepted into Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, I was thrilled.
The adjustment period between schools wasn't easy. I was going from a small school in the country, where I was one of the smarter kids, to a larger school in the city where every student was just as smart or smarter. Even though I was elated to finally be in an environment where I was encouraged and rewarded for contributing to discussion and working hard, it probably took me well into year 10 to feel confident. I realised I was a very small fish in a very big pond.
There are many advantages of attending a selective school which I feel like I benefited from. Because it's the kind of school where students come from all over, it's rare for families to have history, and this seems to eliminate a lot of the petty gossip that can play a big part in other school cultures. The teachers were engaged and committed, endlessly pushing you to succeed. And because every other student valued learning, we pushed each other to do better, be better. Unfortunately, this was also the school's major disadvantage. Although we had amazing sports and drama facilities, getting good grades seemed to be all that mattered.
Were there any major differences between the schools? I'd say both had similar standards and rules for behaviour. With MacRob, though, I think there was an implicit expectation to apply yourself in your studies, and for most students this expectation was self-driven.
"Uniforms were a different story. From years nine to 11, they were pretty similar – a blazer, dress or shirt and tie, but in year 12 at MacRob, uniform became optional. This was a nice change for me and comfy trackies became my wardrobe staple.
I studied media and communications at Melbourne University before moving into the corporate world. While our schooling was different from one another, I believe we each got the right fit for us. I do wish there had been more emphasis on technology when I was at high school as it was only an elective, but I think that attending a selective school gave me the confidence to back myself."
Cerise Canon, 29, studied ballet fulltime while she completed her academic studies via correspondence. She now works in communications.
"I was four when I decided I wanted to be a ballerina, and to my mum's credit, she supported me from that very first day. I think initially people thought it was just a hobby, but when it became clear that ballet was a passion I wanted to dedicate myself to, the idea was floated that I could perhaps study it full-time instead of attending a conventional high school. To my surprise, Mum agreed – but only if I agreed to continue with my studies via correspondence.
Like Candice and Emily, I studied for two years at the same grammar school until I was old enough to apply for ballet school.
I thought it was a fun environment and I thrived in the classroom, fitting in ballet around classes when I could. It offered a great mix of academics, sports and musical theatre/drama, so I was able to dabble in all of my interests, which was great. But there was also a culture of bullying that wasn't handled particularly well.
Towards the end of year eight I auditioned and scored a place studying ballet full-time at Ballet Theatre Australia and from then on, studying ballet more or less took over my life. I studied classical ballet Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 4.30pm, and then I came home to complete the school work set for me by Distance Education Centre Victoria.
I knew I had to meet my end of the bargain when it came to completing high school, but since my focus was purely on ballet, my heart wasn't in it. Much of the work was set out online, which obviously gave students like me the freedom to pursue our creative work. But even though teachers were always on the end of the phone encouraging me, and Mum was always telling me to get off my bum, I struggled with motivation.
I guess my personality type is far more suited to the rigid structure of a conventional school. That said, I loved hearing about my sisters' schooling experiences and reflecting on my own in comparison – it made me realise we were each where we needed to be.
I enjoyed my time doing ballet, but I left when I was 17 after a spell helping out a friend who was volunteering at Melbourne Fashion Week. I'd been in the ballet and education-by-correspondence bubble for so long that it was an eye-opener to see a whole new world out there, and I was desperate to be a part of it.
I'm a communications and social media specialist in the beauty industry now and it's a job I love. Studying via distance education while at ballet school was absolutely the right decision for me, because it shaped me in a way that no other school could and allowed me to pursue my passion. It's a life experience I'd never take back."